7 Tips For Successful Family Devotions, Part 2
This week I've been discussing the challenges of having a regular time of family devotions. Many of us want to read the Bible with our families, but how do you actually make it work?
Yesterday I offered the first three of seven tips for having successful family devotions. Those were: (1) Pick a regular time and make it a habit, (2) Follow a reading plan, and (3) Have everyone read. Here now are the final four:
4. Explain the passage. In our family, after we each take turns reading through that day's passage, I will go through the entire passage again, offering my own commentary on what the passage means. This, of course, is the teaching part of family devotions that many of us find intimidating. Yet this can also be the best part of family devotions—particularly when you "see the light come on" in your children's understanding.
Personally, I do absolutely no preparation beforehand. That's zilch, zip, nada, none. If I felt I had to engage in serious study of each passage prior to each family devotion, I simply would get overwhelmed and probably not do anything. So I do my best to explain the passage extemporaneously. This is not as difficult as it seems. First, I can think about what I might say about the passage while each family member is reading through it the first time. Then I simply read through the passage again and explain anything I think needs explaining. My goal is not to preach a sermon or to teach some tightly organized lesson, but to help my family understand what they've just read. It's the same thing you do every time you read a storybook to a small child and encounter a word or concept they're unfamiliar with.
Of course, the Bible is sometimes more difficult to explain than most children's storybooks, but it's there that Accordance becomes the ace up my sleeve. For example, as my family has been reading through the Psalms, we have seen the phrase "faithful love" (HCSB) used over and over again. By hovering my cursor over those words, I saw that they translate the Hebrew word chesed. Now, I already happened to know that chesed is typically used to mean God's covenant-keeping love, so it was fairly natural to bring out that meaning in the context of the psalm we were reading. If I had been unfamiliar with the word, I might have quickly looked it up in a lexicon or done a word study of it when I had more time. By bringing out the covenantal aspect of chesed to my kids, and then seeing that term used in psalm after psalm, our family has developed a deeper sense of how the psalmists often appeal to God not on the basis of His tender feelings (the typical modern American understanding of "love"), but on the basis of his covenantal love and willingness to obligate himself to His people.
In addition to occasionally looking up key words in the original languages, I often turn to the Accordance Atlas and PhotoGuide to explain any geographical references in a passage. The other day we read Psalm 108, which describes Ephraim as God's helmet, Judah as God's scepter, Moab as God's washbasin, and Edom as the place where He throws his sandal. So I opened a map and selected the Divided Kingdoms region layer which shows the location of these places. I then speculated as to why these places were described the way they were. Is Moab a "washbasin" because of its proximity to the Dead Sea? Is Edom the place where God throws his sandal because it is to the far south? Or because it is dusty? I don't know exactly, and if I had the time I might consult some commentaries for answers, but in the context of a family devotion I simply gave my best guesses and moved on.
I hope you can see that your observations and explanations of a passage don't have to be particularly deep or insightful, and they certainly don't have to be perfectly accurate. Am I oversimplifying the meaning of chesed as "covenant-keeping love"? Of course I am. Am I totally correct in my geographical explanations of Psalm 108? Probably not. The point is that I am helping teach my children how to read the Bible, how to think about the text in its historical context, how to ask relevant questions about the text, and how to work through various possible meanings. It sounds like the stuff of a seminary course, but it's really much more natural and laid back than that. And of course, these are some of the more elaborate examples of how I turn to Accordance for help. In most cases, I just read the text and explain what I think it means.
5. Encourage discussion … to a point! This explaining phase of our family devotions often generates some kind of discussion. After all, it's the Bible, and there's lots of stuff in there worth talking about. Sometimes I'll ask a thought-provoking question to help generate discussion, but more often than not, my wife and children bring up points of their own. The current passage may remind one of them of another passage, and they'll mention that. If there's time, we may even look that other passage up and talk about it. Perhaps the current passage speaks to something one or all of us has been dealing with, and that generates discussion of how to apply the passage to our lives. Perhaps the passage addresses a difficult theological or ethical topic, and we'll spend some time discussing it. These are often some of the richest, most fulfilling moments of our family devotions.
On the other hand, these impromptu discussions can often get pretty far afield, dissolve into silliness, and ultimately consume a lot of time. At times I have to cut them short and say, "Okay, let's get back to the text." Trying to find the balance between fruitful discussion and staying on track is one of the hardest things about family devotions, and at times I worry that I may be cutting short some really good times of family fellowship. Then again, if I don't watch the clock somewhat, we'll have other problems to deal with.
6. Don't try to do too much. We keep our family devotions pretty simple: opening prayer, everyone reads the passage, I explain the passage and we discuss it, closing prayer. Every so often we'll sing a song or work on Scripture memory together, but we don't try to do those things every time. Let's face it, there are lots of wonderful things you could do together, but the more you try to do, the more likely you are to exhaust your kids' attention spans, get frustrated, and decide family devotions are just too much work.
Keep it simple. If your children are young, read short passages, offer simple explanations, and be patient with the occasional story about something totally unrelated—like the caterpillar they saw crawling along a fence! If your children are older, you can tackle longer passages and address more challenging topics, but don't look for a "mountaintop experience" every time. Sometimes it will be like pulling teeth to get them to engage with the text. If your family is like mine, with kids ranging in age from sixteen to three, you'll have a delicate balancing act on your hands. Just remember that teenagers and adults can still benefit from simple insights aimed at smaller children.
In short, feel free to incorporate other elements into your devotions such as worship singing, a catechism question, intercessory prayer, etc. But if you find it gets to be too much, scale back and just focus on reading the Bible together. Better to cover the basics than to give up altogether because you tried to do too much.
7. Have fun! Finally, family devotions should have an element of fun. A little levity and even silliness can help lighten the mood and keep everyone engaged. As we've been reading the psalms, I began encouraging everyone to shout "Selah!" whenever we would run across that word in the text. No one is completely sure what this Hebrew word was meant to indicate, but we basically turned it into an exclamation like "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!" Over time, instead of saying this word in unison, the kids began competing to see who could be the first to shout it out. That was amusing for a while, but it eventually got out of hand and I had to rein it in.
We did something similar when we were reading Romans. Whenever we would run across the phrase "May it never be!" we would all voice the Greek phrase Me genoito! with all the negative emphasis we could muster. When we run across humorous passages, we laugh about them. When we discuss how to apply a passage to our lives, we sometimes engage in good-natured teasing.
More recently we've been ending our devotions by working to memorize Psalm 86. One day, while we were getting ready to recite it together, my fifteen-year-old was fidgeting with a Nerf gun and accidentally shot it. I told him to hand me the Nerf gun, then stand up in front of everyone and recite Psalm 86 by himself. Then, every time he failed to recite the psalm correctly, I would shoot him with the Nerf gun! You wouldn't believe how much fun Scripture memorization at gunpoint can be! (By the way, when the Nerf guns were turned on me, I got clobbered! I need to work harder on my memorization.)
Whether or not your family devotions ever sink to that level of violence, they should never be somber or austere. The psalmists often spoke of "delighting" in the Scriptures, so be sure to have fun when you're reading them together.
I hope these seven tips for successful family devotions have been helpful to you. In my next post, I'll focus on specific Accordance resources that I have found especially helpful during family devotions.